Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The Turkish Lesson

Gavur (Turkish) ~ non-believer, non-Muslim

Patty and I were Peace Corps volunteers in Turkey from September 1968 to May 1970. We were English teachers in the Turkish schools. The first year we were in a rural village called Fatsa on the Black Sea. The second year we were in Konya, a major City in central Turkey. Turkey is unique in the Islamic world. It is a shining beacon of democracy in the Middle East. Turkey has a secular government founded on the principles of democracy, equality and separation of government and religion. The founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, had an astoundingly clear vision in the 1920s and 1930s of what was needed to bring Turkey into the 20th Century.

First, the government had to be free of the shackles of Islam:

"We must liberate our concepts of justice, our laws and our legal institutions from the bonds which, even though they are incompatible with the needs of our century, still hold a tight grip on us." —Mustafa Kemal

"The religion of Islam will be elevated if it will cease to be a political instrument, as had been the case in the past." —Mustafa Kemal

Then the state had to thoroughly repudiate the Islamic law against education or equal rights for women:

The social change can come by (1) educating capable mothers who are knowledgeable about life; (2) giving freedom to women; (3) a man can change his morals, thoughts, and feelings by leading a common life with a woman; as there is an inborn tendency towards the attraction of mutual affection."— Mustafa Kemal

"To the women: Win for us the battle of education and you will do yet more for your country than we have been able to do. It is to you that I appeal. To the men: If henceforward the women do not share in the social life of the nation, we shall never attain to our full development. We shall remain irremediably backward, incapable of treating on equal terms with the civilizations of the West." —Mustafa Kemal

The Turkish state had to be democratic:

"Republic means the democratic administration of the state. We founded the Republic, reaching its tenth year. It should enforce all the requirements of democracy as the time comes." —Mustafa Kemal

Mustafa Kemal was clear that this had to be accomplished by the complete independence of Turkey:

" complete independence, we mean of course complete economic, financial, juridical, military, cultural independence and freedom in all matters. Being deprived of independence in any of these is equivalent to the nation and country being deprived of all its independence." —Mustafa Kemal

Now, I dwell so long on Turkey because it is absolutely unique in the region. No other country in the Middle East is as committed to secularism, equality, education and democracy as Turkey is. But the people of Turkey are also Muslims. And we were gavurs.

Here is the thing: even in modern, secular, democratic Turkey, "gavur" does NOT simply mean "non-believer, non-Muslim." It is not nearly so neutral or descriptive. Even to our educated, polite Turkish friends, "gavur" is derisive, pejorative, and actually means "infidel dog." Now, there is a huge difference between having people view you as merely a "non-believer," sort of the way followers of different religions view each other in the West, and having them view you as an "infidel dog." You can perhaps tolerate non-believers. Infidel dogs on the other hand are are beneath contempt. The Turks did not particularly want us infidel dogs in Turkey as Peace Corps English teachers. A fair number thought we must be spies. The US has or has had a large military presence in Turkey, and this really rubs even ordinary Turks the wrong way. We remember one big banner sign we saw in Konya shortly before we left in 1970: "Americans Get Out of The Turkey." The banner writer should have studied harder in English class, but the sentiment was not lost on us. We heard more than once "We like you as people but we don't like you as Americans." Patty has said she wished she were quick enough on her feet to reply "We like you as Turks but we don't like you as people."

Now, let's look at Iraq - not whether it was right or wrong to invade, but in the context of the Iraqis as Muslims, and the invading Americans as gavurs - foreign infidel dogs. Unlike Turkey, Iraq is a country a with a history that is not secular, where equality of women is a laughable idea, where sheiks, kings, ayatollahs, and mullahs (and one pretty repressive dictator, but that is just a second in the continuum of time) are all they have known and "democracy" is just a foreign word. The foreign infidel dogs on Iraqi soil are not just Peace Corps English teachers either - they are invading soldiers with planes, tanks and guns. Iraq has been invaded by foreign infidel dogs, and that is a plain fact known to every Iraqi. And years later, the gavurs are still there. Any Iraqi would tell you that Iraq is now occupied by foreign infidel dogs. This is an intolerable state of affairs to Muslims.

The Bush people tragically miscalculated, they could not understand how the US troops would necessarily be viewed in Iraq as gavurs, foreign infidel dogs, and not liberators or saviors of the people of an Islamic state.

I will leave you to draw your own conclusions about Obama's strategy in Afghanistan. It is a different place, different motives. Bin Laden. al-Qaida. 9/11. The Taliban. But if the President does not realize that we are gavurs - foreign infidel dogs - just as much in Afghanistan as we are in Iraq, and he seems not to, since he talks about wanting to achieve our goals by "partnering" with actors in the region, it is not hopeful. Go kill Bin Laden, take out al-Qaida, do whatever is necessary, but do not be deceived about how we are viewed there by Muslims.

How could Bush not understand why Iraqis would not throw flowers at the feet of foreign infidel dog invaders? Why does Obama not understand trying to "partner" with the Afghans is futile? That is the Turkish lesson. They don't know the real meaning of "gavur."

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